Beyond Capital

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A QUICK NOTE ON THE POST-PHENOMENOLOGY OF MARX AND HOW TOTALITY IS A PHANTOM THAT IS REAL

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Hegel’s phenomenological story — i.e. phenomena as constitutive moments of the unfolding of the dialectic of essence and appearance — is theoretically central in Marx. Yet, Marxism is post-phenomenological. But what is post-phenomenology? It is nothing but praxis — practice that in its actuality is, at once, itself and its own dialectically-inflected critique. This is “practical materialism”, which Marx radically distinguishes from Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism”. The latter in being a partial materialist critique of Hegel’s dialectical spiritualism is rendered, in the final analysis, subjective-idealism and thus a necessary complement of Hegelian spiritualism. Hence, in its theoretical or cognitive moment (Marxist) post-phenomenology is phenomenology as both the symptom of praxis in its interruption, and a placeholder of the praxis to come.

In that context, one can clearly see how Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical image” (dialectic as an image of its own standstillness), or, for that matter, Brecht’s “gestus”, are nothing but discursively articulated conceptions of the post-phenomenology of praxis in its theoretical or cognitive moment. Something that radically re-defines the cogitative order itself to render thought the image and/or concrete index of its own determinate excess and suspension. This reveals how such conceptions are radically and modally distinct from such essentially phenomenological conceptions of Heideggerian discourse as historicality and the ontico-ontological nature of Being — their seeming resemblance notwithstanding.

Many new-fangled theorists and fashionable ‘radical’ philosophers in their post-Marxist zeal to either reject, or, more dangerously, appropriate Marx, tirelessly insist that totality is a phantom. But if one adheres rigorously to what one has sought to demonstrate above — i.e. the post-phenomenological character of Marxism, which amounts to extenuation of phenomenology precisely through its radicalisation — one will have to admit that even as totality is a phantom it is a real phantom (a “real abstraction” a la Marx). Alfred Sohn-Rethel in his critique of Althusser insists that Marx’s conception of commodity abstraction is, contrary to the French philosopher’s explication of the same, not merely metaphorical but literal. That is to say, the commodity-form is not merely a symptom of its own impossibility — a mark of its own inexistence as it were. Rather, the value-expressing commodity-form — one ought to say following Sohn-Rethel’s critique of Althusser — is a symptom of its own impossibility precisely because it exists as a commodity-fetish in a literal sense. Marx’s explication of commodity-abstraction, particularly in Capital, Volume I, points unambiguously in that direction.

Marx demonstrates how commodity abstraction — and therefore the value-bearing commodity-form — is a living contradiction. He reveals with great clarity how commodity abstraction — or valorisation — is about difference being qualitatively equalised precisely in its being difference. He, therefore, also shows that there is no qualitative equalisation — valorisation — without qualitative difference because the question of exchange, and thus qualitative equalisation, arises only when there is qualitative difference. That is to say, a commodity-form is qualitative difference bearing its own negation, which is qualitative equalisation. That is how commodity-form/value-form, in being itself as a unit of qualitative equalisation, is a symptom of its own negativity; and is, therefore, a living contradiction.

There is no doubt that Althusser’s rearticulation of Marx’s concept of commodity abstraction in Lacano-Freudian terms of “symptomatic reading” is, from a strategic-interventionist standpoint, a crucial theoretical breakthrough. But it is likely to pave the way — as it unfortunately often has — for a post-Marxist, poststructuralist appropriation of Marx. That, not surprisingly, has rendered Althusser’s conception of relative autonomy of contradictions into an absolute autonomy of difference — a good example of this is Deleuze’s affirmative conception of “difference-without-opposition”.

This problem cannot be obviated unless Althusser’s revolutionary anti-humanist theoretical breakthrough — which he accomplished through the Lacano-Freudian symptomatic reading of Marx’s conception of commodity abstraction — is supplemented with Sohn-Rethel’s Hegelian-Marxist critique of the same. This would serve to underscore the fact that Althusser’s entirely valid anti-humanist critique of Hegelian historicism (and Left-Hegelian humanism) is essentially radicalisation of Hegel by thinking Hegel in the extreme — an operation that amounts to brushing Hegel against his own grain.

Clearly, Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism, in radical contrast to the anti-Hegelianism of his post-Marxist epigones and poststructuralist compatriots, is not a premature jettisoning of Hegel but his rigorous extenuation. This is an aspect of Althusser’s thinking that is quite evidently there in such essays of his as ‘Marxism is Not A Historicism’ (in Reading Capital) and ‘Lenin as Philosopher’ (in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays). And supplementing his symptomatic reading of the commodity-form with Sohn-Rethel’s critique of the same is likely to foreground that aspect of Althusser’s discourse and thinking. In fact, the Spinozist moment in Althusser, and more significantly in Pierre Macherey, emerges arguably as an integral dimension of this manoeuvre to radicalise Hegel in order to have Hegelian historical reason exceed and surpass itself. This, for example, comes out most clearly in Macherey’s Hegel or Spinoza, wherein Spinoza is made to function deconstructively within the symmetrical Hegelian dialectic of recognition (historicism + humanism) to radicalise and transfigure it into an asymmetrical, materialist dialectic of anti-humanist action.

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For a new aesthetic of revolutionary exhibitionism against the aestheticised politics of liberal bourgeois voeyurism

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There is a need to think a new revolutionary aesthetics of exhibitionism against liberal exhibitionism — for me, the latter is basically the politics of commodity abstraction and society of spectacle a la Situationists such as Guy Debord. However, in order to do that the scopic drive will need to be rethought and re-envisaged, not in terms of contemplativeness, but contemplativeness pushed to its extreme that renders the contemplated object into a dialectical image. [Now, this is already a displacement of contemplation into practical-materiality — or, at any rate, the former being placed under the condition of the latter — in Marx’s sense of the terms as he explicates them in his Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology.] That is crucial if desire is not to be conflated and confounded with its cathection (investment). Such cathection or investment being the interruption and concomitant distortion of desire precisely on account of its determinate instantiation. After all, as Lacan would tell us, the “petit object a” is not much more than a metonymy of desire.

And here Nietzsche’s acute poser about whether truth is not a woman can be deployed rather productively. “Woman” here in its Nietzschean articulation must, arguably, be grasped in terms of “becoming-woman”. That is, woman not as an anthropological difference (which is difference-as-identity) but as an ontological difference (difference as differing away from identity). Translating this antidialectical conception of “becoming-woman” into the conceptual framework of the asymmetrical or materialist dialectic we could say, following Lacan, that woman-as-truth or becoming-woman is to be understood as the Real that cannot be inscribed within the horizon of the symbolic even as it founds that horizon. Clearly then, ‘woman’, in “becoming-woman” or Nietzsche’s “woman-is-truth”, is now no longer thinking of even ontological difference but is, instead, a limit-conceptual figure of ontological subtraction.

This, I beleive, dovetails with what I have tried to get at above with regard to grasping the exhibitionism/voyeurism couple not simply as a dialectic, but as an asymmetrical dialectic, and thus as determinate presentation of exhibitionism-voyeurism singularity in excess of their symmetrically dialectical coupling as exhibitionism/voyeurism duality. In that context, the exhibitionist desire of revolutionary militancy is not merely exhibitionism but Dionysian exhibitionism (a la Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, for instance). And here, therefore, the exhibitionist revolutionary-militant is not a declarative-constantive object — or a directive tribune — vis-a-vis a milieu of passive contemplators/consumers he/she subjectivates thus. Rather, he/she is a semiosis of impulse or symptom of performativity, which is the object-exceeding force in the distinct temporality of its own singularising/singular subjective-materiality. Something that renders this sign/symptom a unit of the milieu of active and continuous producers in the Brechtian sense.

In fact, that is precisely the reason why I think Marquis de Sade’s ‘pornography’ poses and articulates a revolutionary-republican aesthetic. If we attend carefully to the apparently pornographic discourse of his literary production — particularly, his ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’ — we see that not only does it have a didactic form but one whose mode is Dionysian (performative), which this form strives to transparently reveal. Clearly, De Sade’s discourse ceaselessly registers the thinking of the ethical imperative of desire and the moral law together, but in their separateness. It’s this form and mode of what I wish to call the Dionysian didacticism of desire — and not just any form of BDSM pornography — that renders De Sade’s ‘pornographic’ discourse the index of counter-contemplative revolutionary-republican aesthetics. And it’s arguably this formal and modal dimension of De Sade’s literary discourse that Foucault misses when he critically describes the former as “the sergeant of sex”, who, in Foucault’s estimation, elevates transgression itself into a law.

After all, it’s not for nothing that Lacan impressed on us the indispensability of thinking Sade with Kant. In short, the new revolutionary aesthetic of exhibitionism-voyeurism — as a historically concrete reconstitution of the revolutionary-republican aesthetic of De Sade — will be one wherein a form of contemplation is already always a demonstration of the displacement of contemplation. That is to say, such an aesthetic will truly fulfil itself only when exhibitionism is already always the demonstration of excess of exhibitionism in its limit.

Therefore, the problem of pleasure, from the standpoint of revolutionary politics, is ineluctable. However, the question then is whether pleasure is merely subjectively interiorised experience that is grasped by way of phenomenological reduction, or, is the question really of pleasure founding its own duration and historicity. For, if it’s the latter, then it is already a post-phenomenological displacement of pleasure beyond its phenomenological experientiality, albeit necessarily in and through that experientiality and phenomenology of pleasure. Hence, what we have is pleasure as an existential experience informing the constitutivity of an austerely neutral extension, which is the historicity of suspension of history — “historicity without history” in Alain Badiou’s terms. This, to my mind, amounts to pleasure founding its own duration and historicity.

And this, as far as I understand, is the path Freud also prefigures and indicates in his engagement with the question of pleasure. For him, the problem of pleasure is not, in the final analysis, one of interiorised experience, subjective intentionality and thus joyous productivity. Rather, the problem of pleasure (read in terms of jouissance) brings to him, particularly if we read him through a Lacanian lens, the question of lack and/or trauma as the Real. This, from what I understand, is the crux of his “beyond the pleasure principle”. And this reveals why Freud is no phenomenologist of pleasure, one who would be concerned merely with the question of alternation between the reality principle and the pleasure principle. Rather, Freud’s concern — in his concerted engagement with the problem of pleasure — indicates the need to develop an approach that thinks the problem of pleasure and its politics in terms of the suspension of the horizon of this alternation of the reality principle and the pleasure principle.

To think the question of pleasure in those terms – i.e. to think pleasure as an experiential-phenomenological moment of the post-phenomenological movement of its own overcoming (beyond the pleasure principle) — is to already have pleasure-as-joyous-productivity displace and thus transfigure itself into the neutral of subtraction. An engagement with the affective experience of pleasure, if it’s rigorous, is, arguably, bound to lead one towards its post-phenomenological beyond – which, in the same movement, would also obviously be a radical break with the horizon of the reality principle. That is demonstrated, besides Freud, by Roland Barthes: a thinker of pleasure for whom the twinned-questions of “zero degree” and “the neutral” are what ultimately matter.

As for me, I have been helped quite a bit in this respect by Badiou’s critique of what he calls “democratic materialism” – the differing alternation of bodies and languages (or joyousness and its interruption) – as also his attendant critique of Deleuze’s anti-Freudian productive conception of desire (“desiring-production”).

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